Mahmood Mamdani’s work is always provocative. In August 2017, I watched with some glee as Mamdani told an audience at the University of Cape Town (UCT) that “it is no exaggeration to say that Afrikaans represents the most successful decolonizing initiative on the African continent,” and that the language was in large part the product of a vast affirmative action program. Mamdani’s point was to explain why no postcolonial government elsewhere on the continent had elevated indigenous languages to languages of science or humanities, beyond what he described as “folkloric.” So I expected that Mamdani’s new book would at least get us talking.
I first encountered Mamdani’s work as a graduate student completing a master’s degree in political science at Northwestern University in 1995. (I have one clear memory of him speaking about Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, upstairs at the famed Red Lion Pub; the owner’s mother had been an African Studies scholar.) By the time I returned to South Africa one year later, Mamdani had been appointed as director of UCT’s Center for African Studies (CAS). What happened there is now well known—just search for “the Mamdani affair,” the name given to his clash with the university over its core curriculum. Mamdani had proposed a new curriculum that challenged the university and South Africa’s relationship to the rest of the continent. At the time, African Studies essentially meant studying black South Africans. (At one point, Mamdani referred to CAS as the “new home for Bantu education.”) Mamdani eventually left UCT to take up a tenured position at Columbia University in 1999, but while he was still at UCT, he gave an inaugural lecture organized around this question: “When does a settler become a native?” And as he writes in his new book, Neither Settler Nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities, his answer was the same then as it is now: never.
Mamdani has been returning to this question of political belonging repeatedly in his books covering South Africa, Rwanda, and Darfur (he is quite prolific; he seems to write a new book every 3 to 4 years). In his latest book, he expands the canvas to include the United States and Israel. He also returns to his earlier focus on Sudan and South Africa.
By way of summary, Mamdani’s book makes three main contributions. One is the obvious contribution to revisionist political history: Mamdani makes settler colonialism and the story of native peoples in the United States central to any understanding of the country in a way that few similarly synthetic accounts do. He identifies the US as the first settler colonial state (which many US scholars still fail to do) and highlights the colonial status of native people in the United States: they are still stuck outside the polity, reduced to bantustan status in their “reservations.”
Since the book’s publication, a number of prominent Native American scholars, most notably Dina Gilio-Whitaker (author of As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock) and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States), have pointed to the importance of Mamdani’s contribution in this regard.
Mamdani also offers insights into the study of comparative politics. Here, I am referring to his taking up the challenge of making the connections between the US, Germany, South Africa, and Israel obvious, a comparison in which he uses the US—usually the exceptional state—as the norm. This presentation of the world from a non-Western-centric perspective—in a discussion of the US, no less—is even more impressive given that Mamdani is a Third World scholar (or, as some prefer, a scholar from the Global South).
Mamdani makes settler colonialism and the story of native peoples in the United States central to any understanding of the country in a way that few similarly synthetic accounts do.
But the book’s overarching contribution is how he brings South Africa back into the discussion. For Mamdani, South Africa represents an interesting starting point for imagining ideas about the nation other than permanent majorities and minorities. And here it is important to note that Mamdani is not saying that post-apartheid South Africa is a utopia (in fact, he spends some time engaging with that criticism of this aspect of his argument), but rather that it points to the terms of a viable political future. South Africa is not perfect, but it prevented one civil war in 1994 and—for all its problems since—it is not currently in danger of falling into another.
Mamdani’s framework of “the lessons from South Africa” for Israel is especially useful. I say this partly because South Africa dominates my own scholarship and it is a country in which I have a personal stake, but also because I think he is right about South Africa’s potential for imagining ideas about the nation beyond those of permanent majorities and minorities.
And this is also where I think Mamdani’s work challenges us.
The first challenge Mamdani offers relates to his notion of survivors. Mamdani proposes that all victims, perpetrators, beneficiaries, bystanders, and exiles be included in an expanded political process; here, Mamdani refers to the usefulness of constitutional negotiations and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa. This goes against much of the contemporary debate in South Africa, in which the TRC is just reduced to a “betrayal” or “sellout.” Mamdani is also not enthusiastic about the use of criminal prosecutions (the Nuremberg option) as a way out of cycles of violence.
Mamdani is right that during and since the negotiations to end apartheid rule, the idea that South Africa belonged to “those who already lived in it” was the one issue on which the white minority and the liberation movements already agreed. In the view of both parties, the struggle against apartheid was contested by South African nationals, and the nation to come belonged to those who had declared it for themselves during that struggle. This was the case whether they were victims, perpetrators, beneficiaries, bystanders, or exiles.
South Africa represents an interesting starting point for imagining ideas about the nation other than permanent majorities and minorities. And here it is important to note that Mamdani is not saying that post apartheid South Africa is a utopia (in fact, he spends some time engaging with that criticism of this aspect of his argument), but rather that it points to the terms of a viable political future.
So it follows, then, that what binds black and white South Africans together is a kinship based on their shared experience of colonialism and apartheid. But here’s the catch: that kinship doesn’t extend beyond the nation-state’s borders or to any new arrivals. It manifests as xenophobia toward these new arrivals, especially Africans from elsewhere on the continent. As South African writer Sisonke Msimang, writing on this site, has put it so well: For South Africans, “foreigners [in South Africa] are foreign precisely because they cannot understand the pain of apartheid, because most South Africans now claim to have been victims of the system. Whether white or black, the trauma of living through apartheid is seen as such a defining experience that it becomes exclusionary; it has made a nation of us.” (Moreover, that tag of “foreigner” in South Africa is applied exclusively to black migrants from elsewhere on the African continent. Increasingly, South Asian migrants—Bangladeshi or Pakistani traders who have opened informal stores, spazas, in black townships in the last fifteen years or so—have been added to the mix.)
So if Mamdani’s book leaves us with a challenge, it is how to move to an understanding of South Africa that extends beyond the nation-state. For me, this involves treating colonialism, apartheid, and capitalism in South Africa as transnational phenomena. Capitalism in South Africa was always a multinational affair; South Africa was never exceptional, it was also part of a regional capitalism that started with slavery and moved through mining capital, industry, and agriculture. These industries are all built on multinational workforces. At times, even apartheid had to come to terms with this. In the late 1980s, apartheid South Africa had no choice but to extend resident status and even citizenship to those workers from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Namibia, and Zambia who had worked its mines and industry, thus confirming the multinational nature of local capitalism. It is also no revelation that workers from elsewhere Southern Africa were equally at the heart of the three major strikes of the twentieth century in South Africa—the strikes of 1946, 1973, and 1987—that played a significant role in ending apartheid.
Similarly, resistance to apartheid involved the whole region. The African National Congress (ANC) and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) camped out in Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Botswana, and Angola. Countries on South Africa’s border paid the price for its support of the liberation struggle; think of the brutal attacks by the South African military on Mozambique, Botswana, and Lesotho. Namibia was basically a South African colony, and the apartheid army occupied parts of southern Angola for long stretches. South African writer William Shoki puts it bluntly: “There are no truly indigenous South Africans; there conceptually cannot be any. What we now call the nation-state of South Africa is a modern invention that has always been a land of foreigners.”
But it is perhaps Mamdani’s rereading of the 1970s in South Africa that stands out the most to me. Here, his argument is that anti-apartheid resistance took a creative turn in the 1970s: that period was the first time that resistance did not reproduce the architects of apartheid inside the resistance itself. Before that, resistance to apartheid and racial capitalism was organized through separate organizations for different racial groups: the ANC for Africans, the Indian Congress for Indians, the Coloured People’s Congress and the white Congress of Democrats, and so on. (Not to belabor the point, but it is not much talked about these days that the ANC maintained these racial lines in its own organization into the mid-1980s. For example, only in 1985 did the ANC open its national executive committee to people of all “races” other from “Africans.”)
Mamdani is right that during and since the negotiations to end apartheid rule, the idea that South Africa belonged to “those who already lived in it” was the one issue on which the white minority and the liberation movements already agreed.
Mamdani’s argument is that the key initiative came from the student movement. Black students broke from the white student movement and went to reorganize themselves collectively as the Black Consciousness Movement, reinventing blackness as a political identity that was dynamic, contingent, and rooted in material conditions. They also revitalized township protests, which had gone dormant after the state clamped down on internal resistance by the mid-1960s and forced the major liberation movements into exile. Radical white students broke with the white National Union of Students and went to organize workers to develop transhistorical identities subject to struggle. We can then read what followed—the 1976 student uprising, the broad left politics of the 1980s of the United Democratic Front, and the Congress of South African Trade Unions with its alternative media, its theater groups and its sports associations—as the formation of new identities based on shared struggles. Mamdani may overstate the ontological break of the early 1970s, but his point holds. (By the way, some critics may take Mamdani to task for treating the UDF in two paragraphs, but, as he has during one of the launch events for the book, he had to leave some things out.) That popular energy of Black Consciousness, the 1973 strikes and later the UDF, the unions, and the student movement, would all eventually cede leadership of the struggle (and with it leadership during formal negotiations with the apartheid government) in pursuit of reimagining the basis of postapartheid South Africa. But it can’t be denied that they contributed considerably to rethinking the idea of political community.
While the ANC, like most postcolonial states and ruling parties, has tried to corral these energies (when the ANC was unbanned, it stood at the lead of negotiations with the apartheid state and demobilized the UDF), it hasn’t been entirely successful. The sporadic upheavals, organizing, and mass protests evidenced by the social movements of the early 2000s (the AIDS treatment movement, the various anti-privatization movements, shack dwellers, and others) and, more recently, Fees Must Fall and Rhodes Must Fall from 2015 to 2017, suggest that some of that tradition is still alive. What’s interesting about all of these new social movements and student uprisings are that they’re all concerned with crafting new political subjectivities and doing so from below.
It is here that I think Mamdani is onto something, and we should think about ways to describe it in more dynamic terms.
What continues to fascinate me about South Africa is how resistance plays out. For me, what is promising is the way that South Africa and South Africans reinvent the political community through struggle. And struggle is crucial for this because it is an education in exercising control over your life and having the power to remake your world. Genuine self-determination is a revelation, not just what’s promised as an empty abstract ideal by most nationalisms.
There are no truly indigenous South Africans; there conceptually cannot be any. What we now call the nation-state of South Africa is a modern invention that has always been a land of foreigners
To consider how this happens beyond state forms and legal structures would bring in questions of mass movements, of culture, of popular culture, and it would expand the terrain on which the forms of solidarity that Mamdani describes—or wishes for—can become possible.
Earlier this year, we saw nascent signs of this new kind of politics again. Young people across university campuses in South Africa revived the protests of Fees Must Fall (and, by extension, of the “education crisis committees” of the 1980s, the Soweto uprising, and Black Consciousness) to demand that all eligible students—even those with historical debt owed to the university—are allowed to enroll. The protests are over for now. Police intimidation and repression were a big part of their dissolution. At one demonstration outside Wits University in Johannesburg, one person was shot and killed by the police.
What is striking, however, was how a prominent slogan of the protests was “Asinamali,” which in isiZulu means, “We have no money.” This slogan plays a starring role in Mamdani’s account of the epistemic break of the 1970s. Students were central to the movements of the 1970s just like they are now.
The protests failed of course, but as Shoki argued at the time about these kinds of pop-up protests: by adopting this symbol, “the protesters demonstrate their potential to not only address the barriers to entry of the increasingly commodified university, but the barriers to living in an increasingly commodified world.” And as Shoki adds, many have called the first #FeesMustFall protests from 2015 to 2017 the most serious challenge to the post-apartheid political order while also pointing out that their vital limitation “was an inability to connect to broader working-class struggles.” But those links may still be forged again in a way that wasn’t there before. For Mamdani, the question of belonging is not who is a settler or who is a native. Instead, he suggests that rather than imagined, the political community ought to be a concrete one of our own making. The South African story at least gets us some of the way there. What South Africans, and others, can learn from Mamdani’s book is that only through collective action can the nation-building project be restarted or put back on a more fulfilling path.
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Tea, Receipts and the Tabloidization of Kenyan Culture and Society
A slew of blogs is eating into the monopoly of the mainstream media, one-man online tabloids spreading salacious gossip that are highly sought after by digital marketers.
To Kenyan millennials in urban spaces and on digital streets, Edgar Obare needs no introduction. The Instagram sensation is known for having converted his digital media account into a platform for salacious gossip, popularly known as “tea”. Screenshots of text messages and images are presented as evidence supporting his exposés to the 729,000 followers of Nairobi Gossip Club. The evidence presented is colloquially referred to as “receipts”. So popular has Edgar become that his presence on the Kenyan social media landscape has introduced the words “tea” and “receipts” into the Kenyan online lexicon.
Edgar’s latest exposé about the high-rolling life of Kilimani’s young “flamboyant businessmen” whose wealth is of dubious origin was a trending topic in late August and early September 2021. The “receipts” showed the nature of their businesses to involve treachery, the sale of fake gold, bank card fraud, money laundering, and defrauding unsuspecting members of the public.
Edgar claims that his exposé led to his main account being deactivated. Public pressure forced the Department of Criminal Investigations (DCI) to start investigations into the young men whose lavish lifestyles Edgar had exposed but few in the public have any faith that anything will come of the investigations.
Harsh criticism was reserved for Kenya’s mainstream media. Brian Mbunde, a radio personality and leading member of Kenya’s Twitterati, posted, “I am sorry for sharing this but it’s dumb af for media houses to report about Edgar Obare losing his account and not the content he posted.”
The evolution of digital tea and receipts
Edgar is not the first Kenyan to curate an online space publishing scandalous gossip and content that passes for investigative journalism in the Kenyan mainstream media. Robert Alai became a household name when he posted photos of individuals engaging in sex at the Muliro Gardens in Kakamega Town a decade ago. Alai’s Kahawa Tungu blog became the go-to site for salacious content involving politicians and personalities in the entertainment industry. He became famous on Facebook and made himself an even bigger name on Twitter.
Then there was Bogonko Bosire’s Jackal News which was known for combative and confrontational content that targeted people in high places. Before his disappearance in 2013, Bosire had positioned himself as the leading voice in the Kenyan blogosphere.
Blogs were quite popular in the early 2010s but as Twitter took root, Media Madness gained popularity with its exposés of the rot in the Kenyan media industry in the mid-2010s. Then came Cyprian Nyakundi who, depending on who you ask is the best investigative reporter, the boldest journalist, an extortionist, a rabble-rouser or a muckraker.
Now Edgar is the man of the moment on Instagram, the social media platform of the moment. It is a generational thing. The medium changes but the stories will always be told, one way or another. Some of his more memorable “teas” include an exposé of a governor’s sexual escapades, the hedonistic ways of a certain “boys’ club”, and the infidelity of local musicians and online personalities.
The rise of online ‘tabloids’
Asked why people love Obare, Lillian Mokeira, a digital influencer said, “I guess people and mostly women love him just for entertainment purposes. Who else serves tea like Edgar?’’
Edgar has receipts and we trust him, and people feel confident sharing these stories with him.
Entertainment. Evidence. Trust.
In Kenya, media organisations ventured into tabloid journalism with the expansion of the economy under President Kibaki. As Boniface Mwangi recently explained in an episode of Cleaning the Airwaves on YouTube, The Standard’s Pulse magazine, launched soon after Kibaki came to power, birthed the celebrity culture in the country.
Pulse was a cocktail of gossip, suggestive photos of women, and entertainment features. The Nation launched Buzz and Daily Metro (which folded within two years), before bringing out Nation News (which still has an online presence although the print version was discontinued). The Standard launched The Nairobian in 2013. It peaked well but has since plateaued as the hunger for salacious gossip and scandalous stories is sated by the likes of Edgar Obare. A slew of blogs such as Ghafla and Mpasho also moved into the space, eating into the monopoly of the mainstream media. While tabloid newspapers have not picked up in Kenya, online tabloids have performed very well, producing some of the biggest scoops.
There is something dishonest about the Kenyan psyche. A part of us is steeped in Christianity and a certain Victorian puritanism that aspires to a cleaner, morally upright society. And then there is that part of us that shows us for who we are: human, animal, corrupt, dirty-minded. And this is the part that enables the existence of Obare, those who came before him and those who will come after him.
While tabloid newspapers have not picked up in Kenya, online tabloids have performed very well, producing some of the biggest scoops.
This is the part that explains Obare’s 700,000+ Instagram followers. It is what has made Obare not just any other social media influencer but a one-man army with a mission: to profit from spreading gossip much in the manner of a tabloid. Speculation about how much he makes is rife, but in late 2020 and early this year, his platform was one of the most sought after by digital marketers.
Why do we love and loathe tabloids?
Those who love tabloids may love them because of the human’s innate inclination to prurience, that dark and unhealthy obsession with sexual matters and other obsessions that feed the dark haunts of our psyche.
Edgar, therefore, is Kenyan society come full circle. From pretentiously prudish, where creators of salacious content are spurned by the blue chips, to a single blogger commanding a huge online following of potential consumers.
Edgar is a one-man tabloid enterprise. He has succeeded where tabloids have failed. He is only comparable to Uganda’s Red Pepper (whose influence has predictably dwindled due to social media). In Uganda though, there is no hiding that people love their Red Pepper. In Kenya, we can be prissy.
Journalism 101: one of the things that makes anything newsworthy is prominence. We tend to focus on the lives of prominent people. In the past, it was monarchs, royalty, philosophers, artists. Today we have personalities who are famous for being famous, the socialites and those other social media personalities who cannot describe what they do in five words.
Human beings have always placed the talented, the gifted, or those bestowed with special attributes on a pedestal. We celebrate their rise to the top and with schadenfreude, enjoy their humiliation and their fall from grace.
We like and admire the famous, and increasingly, the not so famous, because they offer a window into our own souls, into our own dark urges. As comedian Lori Ann Rambough (stage name Sommore) observed when talking about braggadocio in rap music, “It is a fantasy one cannot live.” The famous also allow us to participate vicariously in their lives, real or staged. We empathise when they are winning, and experience schadenfreude when they are losing.
Gossip as a function of power
Gossip is a function of power. Those without power use it as a tool of social protection, to galvanise into action or to cushion against an oppressor. Those who are powerless often turn to gossip as a way of trying to make meaning of their mundane lives. Since gossip often cannot be verified, it offers a veneer of protection to those who propagate it, while still passing on information.
There is a reason gossip is common with women, as Twitter user @disciplepati observed when she commented recently that historically, women have used gossip as a form of social protection and a means of spreading information about possibly predatory people, while men have demonized it because it is used as a safeguard against them.
Today we have personalities who are famous for being famous, the socialites and those other social media personalities who cannot describe what they do in five words.
Gossip, if efficiently deployed, can also be used by the powerful to malign their competitors, and to manipulate people using misinformation and propaganda (the Cambridge Analytica approach is one example). Rumour and gossip have been used by the powerful to damage the reputations of others. In Kenya, gossip was used to end the careers of the once all-powerful Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, and Kenya’s fifth Vice President, Josephat Karanja.
Two deaths and how the grapevine shaped their reportage
But gossip has not just been used politically to end careers. It has also been used to sow seeds of doubt about high profile assassinations. Thirty-three years ago, the remains of a 28-year-old British wildlife photographer were discovered in Maasai Mara. She had disappeared a few days earlier. In her brilliant book A Death Foretold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, Grace Musila underscores the role the grapevine played in the aftermath of the murder.
When mainstream/traditional media cannot facilitate information flow, the public fills in the void with speculation and conspiracy theories. And since the authorities are sometimes not trusted by individuals, gossip easily fills the information void.
An investigative story requires time and resources. It must also be cleared of the risk of libel. Whereas bloggers have a similar obligation to be truthful, few people who have been the subject of scandal are usually interested in suing, given that few bloggers can actually pay the hefty fines. If they have access to power, most of those exposed will intimidate the bloggers, gag them. A few have gone missing, or had their sites mysteriously taken down.
A year and four months after Ms Ward’s remains were found, Kenya’s Foreign Minister, Dr Robert Ouko was murdered in similar fashion. The two murders provide a good demonstration of how gossip works.
In both cases, the Moi regime was highly implicated in the cover up. Following Ouko’s murder, the death of witnesses in unclear circumstances led to speculation and gossip about what had really occurred.
In every such murder, there is the official version that many people don’t believe and the rumours that thrive. In the case of Ms. Ward, the son of a powerful government official was implicated but the political atmosphere of the time was such that no journalist, or anyone else, could freely mention the name of the suspect.
Both Ward and Ouko were reported to have committed suicide, an explanation that no one could believe. “In this environment of suspect and suspicious state truths, Kenyan publics following the case actively sought, created and circulated their own versions of the truth behind the tragedy through the grapevine, some of which made their way into local print media and back,” writes Musila, adding, “For Kenyans, the various rumours regarding the murder provided material with which to map out the circumstances surrounding it, which in turn could be used as a fairly reliable index of the levels of brutality and violence of the Moi regime, among other things.”
In every such murder, there is the official version that many people don’t believe and the rumours that thrive.
Musila outlines the mutual paranoia of the state and citizens, made worse by the fact that state institutions and state-owned media took to self-censorship. In the 1980s and 1990s, many independent magazines operated by human rights activists and lawyers such as Gitobu Imanyara, Njehu Gatabaki and Pius Nyamora were also shut down because of repression and a toxic environment in which they simply could not thrive.
But social media cannot be easily controlled in similar fashion without the country becoming a pariah state. Although the arrests have not stopped – Obare, Nyakundi, Alai and other bloggers have spent nights in police cells because of what they post, others have lost their social media accounts, some have gone missing or lost their lives – Kenya is freer, the democratic space has widened.
Musila cites Kenyan scholar and author Keguro Macharia who has noted “the relationship between temporality – when something is published, edited, revised, deleted – and circulation, through reblogging, as a link, as a forward. . . .” Unlike a magazine, which could be closed down to contain the spread of damaging news, a controversial post at risk of being pulled down is screenshot and saved in the event that it disappears.
The future of Kenya’s grapevine
The media will continue to move online. Social media has democratized information and the mainstream media can no longer lay claim to a monopoly to information. Some media personalities have a larger following and a larger readership/viewership/listenership than traditional media.
Bloggers and social media personalities are now more trusted, especially where—like Obare and his “receipts”—they have built up their credibility. Where institutions are afraid of libel, intrepid social media personalities suffer no such limitations.
And so, even as the tools evolve and new social channels appear—Snapchat, TikTok—the online grapevine will continue to be a platform for citizen journalism, whistleblowing, mudslinging and cheap gossip.
The Pitfalls and Potentials for African Cinema
In the era of market-driven streaming, what are the pitfalls and potentials for African cinema?
With COVID-19 further impeding the stability and growth of cinema across Africa, it is imperative to promote self-expression and look to the work of filmmakers such as Bassek ba Kobhio and Alain Gomis as models that already exist and would benefit from funding to build and maintain editing and production studios. If global streaming giants want to stand out as promoters of diversity, equity and inclusion, they must invest more resources in African cinema to compensate for the shortcomings of a purely commercial approach to streaming.
The economic and social impacts of the pandemic will undoubtedly be felt for years to come. Like elsewhere, African countries have seen cinema closures, shoots shut down, unpaid actors and technicians, and additional job losses. As African Film Festivals streamed online across North America and Europe and streaming platforms expanded, questions around the future of African cinema have taken new forms. Let’s look more closely at what streaming could offer African cinema in the future; but also, why Euro-American global business models may have serious shortcomings.
African cinema refers specifically to the seventh art—that of cinema—which has historically been crafted on celluloid film by its directors, or auteurs, whose aims have been for Africans to project images of Africans and to inspire thoughtful reactions from viewers, as opposed to Hollywood filmmaking, which is meant to entertain. Nollywood, which emerged as a popular industry in the 1990s, has stood in stark contrast to auteur filmmaking for its video format and aim to entertain.
In many ways, streaming would appear to be the most viable solution for disseminating and screening movies as well as series and other TV programming at once across and beyond the African continent. It is not surprising that global media giants, such as Netflix, have capitalized on confinement and expanded their subscriptions by millions. Meanwhile, other streaming platforms, including Showmax, Iroko TV and TV providers Canal+ Afrique have tried to remain competitive during the pandemic despite layoffs. However, the Netflix approach may have negative impacts for African cinema’s future for several reasons.
Currently, many people who have Internet access on the continent (only about 22% of the total population) may have insufficient bandwidth to stream and/or the money to subscribe to streaming services. As Franco-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis has wisely stated: “International success often masks realities on the ground.”
For instance, in one of the continent’s largest economies, Nigeria, streaming services cost the equivalent of USD8 per month, which is enough to buy more than 14 pounds of rice. In the DRC, in addition to being prohibitively expensive, there is almost no capability for streaming throughout most of the country—an example of broadening, rather than narrowing, economic inequality.
Programming is predominantly Hollywood or European content, similar to what France exports through its Canal+. In Senegal, for instance, Netflix shows Kobra Kai, The Karate Kid, American History X, The Fast and the Furious, or French crime films like Balle perdue. One of the few African films streaming on Netflix in Senegal is French filmmaker Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s misrepresentative adaptation of Emmanuel Dongala’s novel Johnny Mad Dog. Even Netflix’s Africa Originals are dominated by Western media formats, such as police thrillers, dramas, or romantic comedies. Further, the vast majority of the Africa Originals are not getting to Netflix subscribers on the continent, in spite of Netflix Head of Africa Originals, Dorothy Ghettuba’s statement that Netflix Africa’s aim is, first, content for African subscribers and, second, for the rest of the world. In fact, it’s the opposite. Of the more than 30 countries where films like The Mercenary, The African Doctor, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Tsotsi and Mati Diop’s Atlantics are streaming, none of them is available on Netflix in any African country with the exception of South Africa.
Pandemic or not, African cinema continues to face the two-pronged issue of production and distribution today, 60 years since its beginnings. This has to do with the larger problems of lack of (cinema) industry and financial support for the development of cultural institutions and regional collaborations, such as the short-lived Inter-African Consortium of Cinematic Distribution (CIDC), which shut down in the early 1980s. Specifically, training facilities are lacking not only for camera operators, actors, writers and directors, but also for editing and editing and production equipment (studios). Movie theatres were already few and far between before COVID-19.
There is much churning and abuzz with regard to cultural production on the continent, which would flourish if given more funding. There is barely support from governments in Africa and the situation is now even worse because of COVID-19. Further, Abderrahmane Sissako notes that with Europe’s closed borders, it is quite hard for Africans to go there and develop filmmaking techniques, skills, and education. Models that are primed for such developments already exist and would benefit from funding to build and maintain editing and production studios. The closest today are described, like Gomis does, as a collaboration of “government officials and professionals from the film and audiovisual field” and are the fruits of intense work and networking over decades in some cases. For instance, Bassek ba Kobhio’s Écrans Noirs festival, which over the past 23 years has grown and had success not only as a festival, has also been instrumental in training actors and directors, promoting local cinema in the Central Africa region, as well as from across the continent.
Taking a similar approach in building the Yennenga Center in Dakar, Gomis makes the point that only local Senegalese who have international connections are likely to make it in the industry, whereas one of his goals is to achieve options even for those who are not able to study or train internationally. Gomis underscores that teaching and training must be experiential, particularly in the context of the differences between learning cinema in France and in Senegal, where in the former one learns in the classroom and eventually has plenty of movie theaters to show their films yet in the latter the situation is but theoretical and must be translated to the needs of Senegal.
Some government programs, such as USAID’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), have contributed positively to the development of the cinema industry on the continent. In Niger, for instance, Aïcha Macky, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and founding CEO of production company, Production Tabous (Taboo Productions) has benefited from such funding support. In turn, her organization has donated several films to Nigerien television during the pandemic.
On policy and promotion of culture, as Alain Gomis points out, “if film and cultural property are considered to be mere opportunities for financial gain or success, they lose their impact.” Furthermore, as he indicates, diversity on the screen “makes cultural diversity possible.” It is also a good way to recognize African contributions to culture through art, and to elaborate on how African Americans have inspired Africans and vice versa.
As we consider possible futures, including streaming, for African cinema, it is essential to acknowledge that developing such industry in African countries is a complex endeavor, which requires institutions to be built, education and communications technology to be enhanced, with the ultimate goal of supporting filmmakers and valuing human life through telling human stories.
The Power of Connection Through Literature in the Era of COVID-19
Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?
Just over a year ago, in February 2020, I flew to Nairobi to award the 5th Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature at a ceremony at the Intercontinental Hotel. While disembarking from the plane, every single passenger had their temperature taken with an infrared thermometer, causing a long, mildly disgruntled queue in a confined space at the arrival gate. We all knew this was because the coronavirus had started to appear outside of China, but we didn’t think there was much risk of contagion at that point. When I flew back to London a few days later, I changed planes in Paris and mingled freely with thousands of passengers from all over the world. On arrival at Heathrow, my temperature was not checked at all. In fact, it took until February 2021—a year later—before the British government restricted entry to the UK and enforced mandatory quarantine on arrival.
I had a similar experience when I flew to Lagos in 2014 for the Ake Festival while Ebola was raging in nearby West African countries; at the time, these countries were struggling to contain the deadly, appallingly contagious virus within their borders. At Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos, all passengers had their temperatures checked, but on my return to London, I only saw a few posters that warned of Ebola in West Africa. Nobody checked where I had come from or whether I had been in contact with anyone who could be infected, even though there was a Liberian writer at the festival in Abeokuta and a Liberian woman being taxed for a bribe in the passport queue in front of me in Lagos. Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone were the three countries affected by this outbreak, the worst in the history of Ebola.
Two weeks after I left Nairobi last year, the chair of the Kiswahili Prize, Mwalimu Abdilatif Abdalla, was told he could not leave Kenya to return home to Germany on March 26. After I left, he had stayed on to go to Mombasa and Tanzania and visit relatives in his village in Kenya. Instead, his return flight was canceled and he was confined to government accommodation for over two weeks. When I asked him on WhatsApp how he was coping, he said that after three years in solitary confinement in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison (1969–1972), he was managing very well. His sense of humor always defies belief! His friends even joked that he could write a quarantine memoir called “Sauti ya Korona” (The Voice of Corona), after Sauti ya Dhiki, his prison anthology.
By March 16, 2020, the UK was in lockdown and coronavirus had spread all over the world. I couldn’t help thinking that I had been safer in Africa—and I promptly caught the virus and lost my sense of taste and smell for 10 days. The friend I had probably caught COVID-19 from developed long COVID-19 and was ill for six months, whereas I recovered quickly. It seems this roll of the dice reaction was the same for many people: symptoms varied and doctors struggled with the scale and variety of immune responses. A year later, this coronavirus has realized the fears of a global pandemic precipitated by SARS and dreaded for Ebola; at the time of writing, the world approaches 5 million COVID-19 deaths, with 163 million recoveries among the 178 million recorded cases globally. Notably, the Kenyan death toll is currently under 4,000, and the Nigerian count just over 2,000.
In Veronique Tadjo’s book In The Company of Men (2019), first published in French in 2017, we find a timely reminder of “the destructive powers of pandemics.” The book focuses on the Ebola outbreak of 2014, which preceded the COVID-19 pandemic by six years but has been present in parts of Africa since 1976, when it was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo and named after the Ebola River near which it was found. Tadjo has commented that she sees a clear link between Ebola and COVID-19, although they are very different diseases. “For me,” she writes, “the Covid-19 pandemic is a continuation, not a break. It inscribes itself in the same context of climate change and its consequences. Ebola wasn’t a one off and Covid-19 won’t be either.”
Through five sections comprising 16 different points of view, Tadjo presents the impact of the Ebola pandemic from the perspectives of different characters including trees, nurses, those infected, survivors, and the virus itself. For example, in a chapter titled “The Whispering Tree,” the narrator declares, “I am Baobab.” The choice of the baobab tree’s perspective is unique, telling of Tadjo’s concern with environmental degradation as a key factor in the development of such a deadly virus. Reviewer Simon Gikandi, a Kenyan novelist and scholar, comments that “Tadjo weaves a story that turns the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa into a parable of what happens when the chain that connects human beings to nature is broken.” And this is perhaps where we have the most to learn in terms of new ways of seeing the COVID-19 pandemic. As Gikandi remarks, “In the Company of Men gives voice to the natural world and mourns the loss of the well-being that existed before the destruction of the environment and the arrival of postmodern pandemics.”
In the context of such questions, I was struck by a recent BBC documentary called Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, in which David Olusoga and Steven Johnson examine the history of vaccination starting with the rise and eradication of smallpox. They detail how an African man was purchased in 1706 by a Puritan congregation in Boston as a gift for their minister, Cotton Mather, and was “forced to take on a new name,” Onesimus, after a slave in the New Testament. When Mather asked whether Onesimus had ever had smallpox—rife in Africa at the time—he replied, “Yes and no,” and then described the variolation procedure he had undergone in Africa before his capture. Variolation involved cutting the arm and putting fluid from a smallpox wound onto the cut, creating resistance in the host’s bloodstream without transmitting full-blown smallpox. This practice precedes Jenner’s experiments with cowpox by 90 years and had been present elsewhere in the world since the 1500s. This is a key example of effective preventative medicine that was present in Africa before slavery. And yet, the onset of modern transatlantic slavery is when the destruction of the global environment seems to really begin.
With the export of “valuable commodities” from Africa, including human beings, there soon followed deforestation, mining, farming, and building projects that formed the foundations of colonialism, western capitalism, the industrial revolution and imperialism. The rapacious nature of this conquest, which ignored indigenous knowledge systems and ways of living in harmony with the environment, also often spread disease, occasionally leading to new discoveries in medicine (which were not acknowledged or credited at the time).
The presenters of the documentary rightly laud the eradication of smallpox in just 18 years (1967–1985) as one of the great achievements of mankind, one which epidemiologist Larry Brilliant called “the end of an unbroken chain of transmission going all the way back to Rameses V.” Prior to vaccination efforts, smallpox had been killing 2 million mostly poor people a year, and the subsequent campaign involved the cooperation of 73 countries, including Cold War enemies the US and USSR. As Lucy Mangan writes in her Guardian review, “We can be so terrible, and we can perform such wonders.” And it is these wonders that Tadjo brings to our attention by writing In The Company of Men. The containment of the Ebola virus in West Africa in 2014 is due to the combined heroic efforts of people on the ground and the local people who heeded public health messages, attended clinics, separated family members, stopped attending funerals, and got vaccinated.
Tadjo reflects in an interview that “the Ebola epidemic has a multi-layered dimension. It seemed to me that listening to various voices was the best way to get closer to a form of reality. An incredible number of people were involved in the fight against the virus and I could not bring myself to focus on one voice only.” Interesting correlations and discoveries were made by zoologists, for example who,
discovered a phenomenon that greatly increases Ebola’s catastrophic impact. When an outbreak is about to happen in a forest region, the virus will leave gruesome traces in the natural environment. It attacks antelopes, deer and rodents, but especially big apes such as chimpanzees … The remains of hundreds of animals are scattered on the ground … Whenever the villagers notice an unusual number of wild animal carcasses, they’ve learned to alert the local authorities at once, since the carcasses signify that an Ebola outbreak among humans is about to happen.
This connection to the rest of the natural world seems crucial to understanding epidemiology itself and answering the question of how these viral mutations arise (e.g., swine flu, bird flu, etc.). This is why we should be paying closer attention to the other (mass) extinctions occurring in this Anthropocene epoch.
Using the voice of the baobab is inventive and useful in establishing a timeless link to the forest and to ancestral points of view. But using the voice of a virus itself is fairly unusual in African literature. Kgebetle Moele was the first South African writer to do this, writing from the point of view of HIV in his novel The Book of the Dead (2012), which I have written about elsewhere. Moele’s HIV is a malevolent, predatory infiltrator of the human body. This infiltrator, once personified, seems to corrupt its host while replicating itself in unsafe sexual encounters, killing hundreds if not thousands of men and women in deliberate acts of aggression. The Ebola virus, on the other hand, is immediately established (in its own words) as less malignant than humans themselves; Tadjo writes of “man and his incurable, pathological destructiveness.” Humans are blamed throughout for having destroyed the environment and the natural harmonious link between man and nature. However, this is countered by the assertion of human solidarity as a powerful weapon or antidote. Early on in the book, the nurse welcomes the help of volunteers, saying, “when I see solidarity, it makes me want to work even harder.” Even the virus admits that “I understood that their true power showed itself when they presented a united front.”
Much of Tadjo’s writing, including The Shadow of Imana (2002), articulates what “cannot be written or heard.” By writing the voices of the perpetrators and victims of genocide, Tadjo enables us to reach a point of understanding—or, at the very least, consciousness—of what many consider unspeakable. The art of her storytelling lies in this ability to synthesize factual accounts and information first with the lives of real people who lived through the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, and now with the experiences of those who lived through the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In the Company of Men works similarly to unveil the voices of the hidden and, most significantly, those of the dead who cannot tell their own stories. Her writing itself is an act of solidarity. If we listen, we can not only empathize—we can learn from these stories. The accounts should also act as a warning, as pandemics will continue to threaten humankind alongside climate change.
Tadjo’s book reminds me of an aspect of Colson Whitehead’s The Nikel Boys that I have admired so much—that it is so difficult for a narrator to tell a story when the protagonist is dead. Usually, the telling of the tale gives away the fact that the protagonist has survived, or at least lived long enough to narrate the story, but Whitehead twists the ending of his novel to such an extent that we do hear a tale from the grave, from an impostor. This almost reinvigorated story describes the tragic fate shared by many Nikel Boys, whose identities are now lost. This is what is important about Tadjo’s writing: by including the voices of the dead in In The Company of Men, she inscribes the lives of those whose pitiful deaths don’t make it into the real story of Ebola (except as death toll statistics).
This is what the novelist Maaza Mengiste refers to when she asks, “What do the living owe to the dead?” The sheer number of people who died in the Ebola epidemic, the COVID-19 pandemic, the HIV/AIDS pandemic: this is what causes us to lose our sense of perspective and our ability to understand the real human cost of each universe that is lost to these deadly diseases. Mengiste’s further question—“What do they owe to the earth, which both protects and punishes?”—is one we will have to keep considering while we continue to destroy our earth. Is Tadjo’s Ebola virus right? Is man’s pathological destructiveness incurable? What do we owe the earth? Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?
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